WASHINGTON (Reuters) – In a court case that could further strain U.S. relations with Turkey and weigh on the sentencing of former U.S. national security adviser Michael Flynn, a criminal trial began on Monday involving a former Iranian-American business partner of Flynn.
FILE PHOTO: Former U.S. national security adviser Michael Flynn departs after his sentencing was delayed at U.S. District Court in Washington, U.S., December 18, 2018. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts/File Photo
Bijan Rafiekian’s trial in the Eastern District of Virginia turns on whether he conspired with Flynn and others to lobby on Turkey’s behalf to try to convince the U.S. government to extradite Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, blamed by Turkey for a failed coup.
Flynn, a retired U.S. Army lieutenant general whose brief tenure in 2017 as part of President Donald Trump’s inner circle is still causing legal aftershocks, is not charged as a co-conspirator with Rafiekian. But the case could influence how U.S. District Court Judge Emmet Sullivan sentences Flynn later this year in Washington.
Flynn had previously agreed to cooperate with U.S. prosecutors and testify against Rafiekian, known as “Kian,” in hopes of getting a lighter sentence after he pleaded guilty in December 2017 to having lied to Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigators about his contacts with Russian officials.
In a reversal earlier this month, Flynn and prosecutors had a falling out and Flynn backed away from earlier admissions of making false statements to the U.S. Justice Department in paperwork that disclosed his work as a Turkish government lobbyist.
Flynn now contends he relied on attorneys’ advice when filing the lobbying paperwork with the Justice Department and that he did not knowingly file false information.
Government lawyers now no longer plan to call Flynn as a star witness in the Rafiekian case, although they may end up calling Flynn’s son Michael G. Flynn, who worked for Flynn’s lobbying firm known as the Flynn Intel Group. Defense lawyers for Rafiekian have listed the elder Flynn as a possible star witness in the case.
Rafiekian faces two criminal counts of conspiring to act as an agent of a foreign government, making false statements to the Justice Department and acting as a foreign agent. His former client, Turkish national Ekim Alptekin, is also charged.
For already-strained ties between Ankara and Washington, the trial has implications. Jury selection began on Monday, which is the third anniversary of a failed coup in Turkey that killed 251 people. Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly blamed Gulen and his movement for the coup, a charge Gulen denies.
In the trial, U.S. prosecutors are expected to portray the Turkish government as being heavily involved in a behind-the-scenes lobbying campaign to return Gulen, a shadowy figure who lives in a fortified compound in Pennsylvania, to Turkey.
The Turkish government has denied engaging in a conspiracy to evade U.S. regulations requiring foreign government lobbyists to register with the Justice Department.
“The idea that we would conspire against the United States is preposterous … We categorically reject any accusation of wrongdoing or illegal conduct in the United States,” Fahrettin Altun, spokesman for the Turkish presidency, said in a written statement over the weekend.
Flynn was among the first people in Trump’s inner circle to be charged in Mueller’s probe with lying to investigators about his December 2016 conversations with Sergei Kislyak, Russia’s then-ambassador in Washington, regarding U.S. sanctions imposed on Moscow by President Barack Obama.
Flynn was due to be sentenced in December 2018, but his sentence was delayed after Judge Sullivan lambasted him for selling his country out to Russia and urged him to complete his cooperation with government prosecutors.
Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk and Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Tom Brown